(Originally posted on The Judgment of Paris Forum, February 4th, 2004.)
A question of long-standing debate at this site is, "What role does commercial culture, in and of itself, play in the hegemony of the underweight aesthetic?"
We have long supported the idea that commercial culture is not intrinsically positive or negative, but can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on who is wielding its resources, and to what end. Thus, plus-size fashion advertising is an example of culturally-beneficial commerce, because it constitutes an "alternative media" that can circumvent the adverse effects of the dominant media.
However, there is a compelling argument to be made against this "optimistic" outlook. Vogue's annual "Shape Issues" are notorious examples of plus-size models being (a) exploited in order to push a blatant message of body hatred and diet promotion, and (b) visually ridiculed or distorted to boot. Glamour's annual "Body-Love" issues are less hostile, but still present a jumble of contradictory statements about size and weight. And the latest issue of Figure provides us with the most extreme mixed message imaginable, juxtaposing diet ads, and an article about a potentially fatal surgical procedure for body alternation, with some of the most gorgeous examples of feminine beauty we have ever seen.
So which is the stronger power? Who is using whom? Will commerce be the instrument of an aesthetic restoration, or will timeless beauty be subverted by the immoral and unethical nature of commercial culture, which induces its practitioners to eschew principle in favour of "the bottom line"?
Nicole Thompson offers her insight into this matter in a compelling response to the question on our "Timeless Beauty" page:
Beauty . . . moves people through themselves to a higher idea. An ideal, if you will. Such ideals have been no less than systematically deconstructed, for what I consider to be unconscionably exploitive purposes. Historically at least, beautiful women have inspired us to look to Heaven, not to Narciso Rodriguez.
If we were presented with classical beauty – in women, in architecture, in literature, in language, in thought – as relentlessly as we are presented with ugliness, peculiarity, and intellectual Twinkies (Bauhaus, Danielle Steele, Beavis and Butthead), it seems very likely to me that we would move past what we want to buy into what we want to be, and the media would be ringing its own death knell.
We might move into beauty with such ownership that we would begin thinking about the appearance of our souls, the fullness (or emptiness) of our lives.
Beauty is dangerous to the commercial interests of modernity because it has the potential to emancipate us from our lowest appetites. Hence, the doublespeak campaign that "ugly is beautiful."
When a people hear a lie relentlessly enough, even the best begin to believe it might be true.
Nicole's statement outlines both the challenges and the opportunities that lie before us. Commercial culture may seek to co-opt timeless beauty, and to use it for its own purposes. However, this stratagem may backfire, because as more people are exposed to this manner of beauty, they will be inspired in ways that they have never been before. With the revival of unmodern beauty, the unmodern ideals that the modern world has worked so hard to deconstruct will once again become conceivable.
In fact, the return of those ideals could well reform commerce itself. The 2003 "Forever Beautiful" Elena Miro campaign is a shining example of a new idea of commerce, one that is predicated on inspiration rather than degradation. It is not a case of art being used simply as a novel element in an ad campaign. Rather, it is a promotion that is governed by an artistic principle. It constitutes nothing less than a serious attempt to facilitate cultural renewal.
Elena Miro may have initially hired Barbara Brickner to be their "face," and nothing more. But as the company produced campaign after campaign, each more compelling than the last, Elena Miro realized that they had tapped into a power far beyond the flickering allure of "disposable advertising." This realization took their thinking to a higher level. They discovered that they had the potential--even the obligation--to reform society's aesthetics, and thereby to reshape culture itself. They evolved from clothes peddlers into cultural disseminators.
With the return of the ideal of Beauty, Ideals themselves once again become possible.
(Spring 2004 images of Valerie and Barbara drawn from the Reitmans corporate site--www.reitmans.ca.)